Proceedings of the Intedisciplinary Workshop on Complex Learning in Computer Environments: Technology in School, University, Work, and Life-long Education (CLCE94), Ed. by Levonen, J.J.&Tukiainen, M.T. Joensuu, 1994, pp. 7-8.
Learning as formation of man-environment system
Timo Järvilehto
Department of Behavioral Sciences, University of Oulu, 90571 Oulu, Finland


In contrast to the recent developments of the cognitive psychology and cognitive science, the theory of organism-environment system conceives the process of learning as formation of a unitary man-environment system, not as transfer of knowledge from one system (environment) to another (man) or as formation of inner representations in the organism system, separated from the environment. In the frame of the theory all psychological concepts refer to different aspects of the whole man-environment system. Thus, knowledge may be defined as the form of existence of the system, memory as its structure, and learning as reorganization of the system leading to new results of action. The key concept of the theory is the result of action which determines the architecture of any organism-environment system. According to the theory consciousness does not represent any inner or private entity, but appears when several man-environment systems join together by communication to form common action results.


It is usually conceived in cognitive psychology or cognitive science that learning is a process in which knowledge is transferred from the environment to the human being. If man represents an organic system acting in another system, the environment, successful action presupposes clearly transfer of knowledge from one system to another or, in other words, representation of the structure of the environment in the human mind or in the brain.

It is just the basic assumption of two separate systems, man and environment, which is questioned by the theory of the organism-environment system and the associated systemic psychology (Järvilehto, 1994). The starting point of the theory is the fact that, although separation of man and environment to two systems seems self-evident, it is impossible to show any exact border separating the presumed two systems. Therefore, in any functional sense man and environment act always together, as one unitary system.

Learning as formation of system for new results

According to the theory of organism-environment system there is no transfer of knowledge in the learning process; learning is not a process in which stimuli would be received, processed, and stored in some "memory centers" of the brain. Instead of that learning is a continuos process of reorganization of the man-environment system, a process during which knowledge is created in dependence on what the human being needs from his environment and to what kind of results his actions must lead. Knowledge means simply form of existence; therefore learning is the basic process of life. There is no order in the environment, before man joins in action its certain parts; during learning every human being is occupying and widening his action environment, creating his world.

The basic process of learning is differentiation of the organism-environment system which makes new results of action possible. The reorganization of the system during learning is determined by the expected result. Therefore all learning is active and goal-directed.

As all learning is determined by the real goal of action, understanding is always related to the real results. If the pupil is learning material for an examination, for example, his understanding is not directed towards the content of the material to be learned, but towards means how to pass the examination. Therefore all formal examinations lead the pupil to wrong paths. Real learning of the content of the learning material may occur only when the material is not used as an instrument for some other purpose (like examination), but as a way to increase the own way of understanding. Real learning and understanding may be achieved only then when the learning process does not produce any immediate profit - and just then learning produces most profitable results.

Role of the nervous system in learning

As all learning means widening and reorganization of the organism-environment system for new results of action, learning does not occur in the brain or in some other parts of the organism, but explicitely in the whole organism-environment system.

Of course, during learning changes may be seen in the relations between parts of the nervous system or neurons, but simultaneously learning means also reorganization of the environment. The brain and the neurons form only parts of the organism-environment system, they may be its elements and as elements of the system they do not have properties of the system as a whole. Mental activity or psychological functions cannot be located in any parts of the brain, because these concepts refer always to the whole organization of the organism-environment system. Thus, neurons, hemispheres of the brain or some other local parts of the human being do not learn; learning penetrates always the whole organism-environment system.

Human learning: learning as co-operation

The result of action is the key to the understanding of the structure of the single organism-environment system. However, hardly any such system acts independently of other systems and almost all animals show some sort of social activity (Mead, 1934). In humans the development of social activity has led to joining of the organism-environment systems for a common result of action. Such joining of the structures of the systems together, the development of real co-operation for a common result, was possible only through development of communication and consciousness. Consciousness means appearance of social environment, shared activity and the possibility for the description of the own action and its objects. Consciousness is not a property of the brain or even an individual, but presupposes always existence of several individuals joining their action for the common result.

Human learning is tightly bound with other people and with social activity. Human learning is never proceeding as an independent individual process, but it involves the whole cultural environment in which every human being is living. In this environment of co-operation language and other ways of communication join the pupil and the teacher and their common experiences together. When learning, man is creating his own personal world and his own view of this world, but it is just the communication which opens the possibility to transfer the common experience to common knowledge.


Järvilehto, T. (1994) Man and his environment. Essentials of systemic psychology. Pohjoinen, Oulu.


Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, self, and society. Chicago Univ. Press, Chicago.